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Good Personas Punch You in the Gut

Anyone can throw together a description of a website’s primary users. You just string together some facts about the users’ skills and knowledge and tasks that they are trying to accomplish. That’s not a user persona, though. When you create a user persona, you create an artifact that makes people care about the user’s experience.

A good user persona doesn’t simply communicate facts about users. A good user persona makes it clear to everyone involved in a project that their decisions have effects on real (and realistic) people. It has an emotional impact. It has the power to punch you in the gut and see how you can address the users’ problems.

Recently, I found a good post on Web Ink Now, Persona focused Web site leads to 4x conversions for RightNow Technologies. This post describes how RightNow Technologies used personas in their website redesign.

This post shows example details about one of their user personas to give you a sense of what personas are about, and then reveals that this project led to increased conversions. It’s good to see the use of user-centered design techniques tied to performance metrics. When you’re trying to convince a stakeholder that user-centered design is worth the time and expense, numbers speak loudly.

However, this post and a lot of other material I’ve read lately doesn’t really touch on what differentiates a persona from a simple description of a type of user.

The power of personas lies in the human capacity for empathy. Personas are more than facts – they are stories. They are not a deliverable to produce before moving on – they are something that you live with throughout the project. Most importantly, personas don’t solve any problems through their mere existence. They only work if they become an integral part of how you talk and even think about a project.

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2 Responses to "Good Personas Punch You in the Gut"

  • Susan Weinschenk
    December 14, 2008 - 7:09 am Reply

    It’s an interesting point you make about the relationship between personas and stories. There is some research about stories that show that our brains react to stories, and that we tend to process information in narrative chunks (chapter 10 in my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click — http://www.neurowebbook.com). That would explain why personas used in UCD can make the user experience “real” to a design and development team. The term persona does tend to be used loosely, and it would be good to get specific about what elements are needed for a persona to really be a persona.

  • Mike Beasley
    Mike Beasley
    December 15, 2008 - 10:55 am Reply

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I see as a tendency to fetishize personas – “If we have make a persona it’ll ward away bad design!” The concept gets simplified as authors attempt to explain personas to a wider audience. In Website Optimization, the book that Pure Visibility contributed to, personas are described in less than a page.

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